Ottawa and the provinces are locking horns ahead of what promises to be a tense meeting of first ministers, with the federal government pushing for discussions on the environment and internal trade while provinces also want to tackle issues such as the oil crisis and the cost of asylum seekers.
The gathering of premiers, territorial leaders and the Prime Minister is expected to highlight divisions across the federation. This is Justin Trudeau’s fourth meeting of first ministers and the first one since he lost Liberal allies in Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick after provincial elections.
“I don’t have any illusions that we are all going to agree on everything, but I certainly know Canadians expect us to be able to roll up our sleeves and talk constructively about how we are going to solve the challenges that they are facing," the Prime Minister said at a news conference on Thursday in Montreal.
The agenda for Friday’s talks has been at the centre of much debate, with Ontario Premier Doug Ford threatening to walk out if there wasn’t more attention devoted to topics that are hurting provinces’ economies, including the oil crisis in the West and the looming shutdown of a General Motors plant in his province.
Speaking alongside Mr. Trudeau ahead of a bilateral meeting on Thursday, Mr. Ford made it clear he will show up on Friday, saying he will want to talk about the federal government’s “job-killing carbon tax” and the asylum seekers “that are costing our province over $200-million.”
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe told reporters in Montreal that he is looking for firm commitments from the federal government to deal with low oil prices and job losses in industrial sectors. He said the debate over the proposed agenda caused frustration among provincial governments, but that he is now convinced he will be able to get his voice heard.
“I don’t think anyone comes to these meetings with the intent of walking out,” Mr. Moe said. “The Prime Minister has an opportunity [Friday] to be a defender of the energy industry, to be a defender of all working Canadians, by listening to the premiers and taking steps towards the recommendations that we will be bringing to the table."
Canada’s ambassador to Washington, David McNaughton, will lead a discussion on relations with the United States. However, many provinces were irked by the scheduling of sessions with federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc.
“The agenda contains basically 60 minutes of the premiers of all the provinces being lectured to by federal ministers,” said Ontario’s Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, Todd Smith.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley is demanding Mr. Trudeau take urgent action to support her province’s oil industry. Companies in Western Canada face a steep discount on their crude owing to the combined impact of a sharp increase in production and a shortage of pipeline and rail capacity to get the oil to markets.
“I think that there will be support because there is no province in the country that doesn’t owe Alberta, to some degree, for their schools, their hospitals and their roads,” Ms. Notley said. “When I get off the plane in Montreal it’s very possible that the car that picks me up is fuelled by Saudi Arabian oil. How long will this go on? How long are we going to operate this way? It doesn’t make sense.”
Alberta purchased ads that will run over the weekend in three Montreal newspapers, as well as space on three websites and on the sides of buildings to remind people and premiers that keeping the province’s oil from getting to tidewater costs Canada’s economy $80-million a day.
Getting ready for his first meeting of first ministers, Quebec Premier François Legault said he is not heading into the meeting looking for confrontation, but has a series of requests to put in front of the federal government.
“We want compensation for dairy producers, we want compensation for the cost of the refugees who have been here for a year and a half, we’ll discuss the economy,” he said. Mr. Trudeau said Thursday he is in talks with dairy farmers to decide on appropriate compensation for their losses in the free-trade agreement with the United States and Mexico.
In a speech at the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, Mr. LeBlanc tried to focus the coming discussions on pragmatic issues such as unifying building codes across the country and coming to a common definition of made-in-Canada products.
“This is not a partisan issue, nor should it be. We must overcome our differences; no one should place partisan politics before their constituents’ prosperity,” he said.
With reports from Shawn McCarthy, Laura Stone, Les Perreaux, Ian Bailey and Justin Giovannetti